There is never a more optimistic time on the Philadelphia sports calendar than the last few days before the Eagles begin training camp. It is a phenomenon that is at once curious and predictable, especially this year.
Everyone, from the team’s most devoted fans to those who follow its progress (or regression) from a distance, is aware of the upheaval that has roiled the franchise since its last game, back in early January. This is a team that was supposed to win its division last year, that finished 4-11-1 instead, that benched and eventually traded its purported franchise quarterback, and that fired the only head coach who has won a Super Bowl in its history. Yet, if you listen hard enough, you can hear the faint Well, maybe, if everything goes right, they won’t be terrible … grow in volume and earnestness until it becomes a full-fledged Hell, yes, they absolutely can win this horse-puck division!
Some of that surge in positive thinking has been born of nothing more than the passage of time. The new head coach handles a few press conferences without throwing up all over himself. The prospective starting quarterback posts videos that show him deadlifting 620 pounds and throwing passes to uncovered receivers during voluntary workouts. The team outmaneuvers a rival to draft a Heisman Trophy winner/promising wideout, then signs a defensive end here and a cornerback there to add depth and fill in conspicuous holes in the starting 22. Gradually, the outlook brightens, whether merited or not. Can’t blame people. Hey, it took four years for people to catch on that those Instagram and Twitter posts of Ben Simmons’ taking and making jump shots during pickup games were digital iron sulfide.
But there’s another reason that, when it comes to the Eagles, hope always springs eternal this time of year. It’s that, with some exceptions, it springs eternal for every NFL team, because the league’s financial and team-building structures encourage that … springing. As convenient as it is to say that the Eagles are “rebuilding” this season, they’re not. Not really. Not in the same sense that a team in another sport, another league, would likely go about rebuilding.
In the NBA, for instance, a great player, generally speaking, has more value than a great player does in the NFL: smaller rosters, the larger effect of one individual, the nature of the sport, etc. So a team might tank for a season or two — or, in the Sixers’ case, three or four — in the name of drafting one or two such players, and that team could be competitive for several seasons thanks solely to those picks. In Major League Baseball, a franchise might decide it needs to replenish its farm system, a process that can take years, so it will hold on to its prospects, wait for them to develop, and take its lumps at the big-league level until those young players hit their primes.
An NFL franchise doesn’t have to put itself through such a slog. The league’s lack of guaranteed contracts and the short half-life of the average player’s career make it much easier for a general manager to manipulate or remake a roster from one year to the next.
Consider: From the beginning of the 2016 season to the beginning of the 2017 season, the Eagles took criticism from those who argued that the organization’s decision-makers were trying to rebuild and reload at the same time, didn’t have a clear plan about how to pull off such a trick, and were destined to fail. (Who has two thumbs and was wrong about that one? This guy.) What that brief period should have reaffirmed was that no NFL team has to go full Cleveland Browns, that it can go from lousy to respectable — or even better than respectable — in a flash. Heck, half the intrigue of any Eagles offseason comes from the mystery surrounding Howie Roseman’s annual display of prestidigitation with the salary cap: creating space, making players disappear, pushing payments and dead-cap money years into the future. And he has plenty of counterparts around the league who are just as adept at that magic as he is.
Those factors and circumstances don’t guarantee that the Eagles will be good this season. Yes, the Eagles might be decent. It’s possible. Nick Sirianni might be the next Dick Vermeil. Jalen Hurts might show himself to be more than a guy who was drafted to back up Carson Wentz. DeVonta Smith might be a game-breaker from his first snap on. But there’s a better chance that the Eagles will be pretty bad. Sirianni has never been a head coach at any level of football. Hurts was spotty during his four games as a starter last season. On paper, the team’s offensive and defensive lines look strong. In reality, several of those players are aging by NFL standards and/or coming off serious injuries.
Just one thing is guaranteed about the Eagles, actually: They will be different, and that makes them at least a little interesting, and that’s all it takes for everyone around here to start dreaming big dreams. Even if the new coach doesn’t know who his left tackle is yet.